Cultivating Cultivation

John Mullan

  • The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century by John Brewer
    HarperCollins, 448 pp, £19.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 00 255537 9

Two descriptions of pleasure gardens, a novel feature in the cultural life of 18th-century Londoners:

Vauxhall it a composition of baubles, overcharged with paltry ornaments, ill conceived, and poorly executed; without any unity of design, or propriety of disposition. It is an unnatural assembly of objects, fantastically illuminated in broken masses; seemingly contrived to dazzle the eyes and divert the imagination of the vulgar – Here a wooden lion, there a stone statue; in one place, a range of things like coffee-house boxes, covered a-top; in another, a parcel of ale-house benches; in a third, a puppet-shew representation of a tin cascade; in a fourth, a gloomy cave of a circular form, like a sepulchral vault half lighted; in a fifth, a scanty slip of grass-plat, that would not afford pasture sufficient for an ass’s colt. The walks, which nature seems to have intended for solitude, shade and silence, are filled with crowds of noisy people, sucking up the nocturnal rheums of an aguish climate; and through these gay scenes, a few lamps glimmer like so many farthing candles.

Image to yourself ... a spacious garden, part laid out in delightful walks, bounded with high hedges and trees, and paved with gravel; part exhibiting a wonderful assemblage of the most picturesque and striking objects, pavilions, lodges, groves, grottoes, lawns, temples, and cascades; porticoes, colonades, and rotundos; adorned with pillars, statues, and painting: the whole illuminated with an infinite number of lamps, disposed in different figures of suns, stars and constellations; the place crowded with the gayest company, ranging through those blissful shades, or supping in different lodges on cold collations, enlivened with mirth, freedom, and good humour, and animated by an excellent band of music.

The odd thing about these reactions, and the difficulty for any social historian wanting to make them tell us something about the times, is that they come from the same source: Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771). The novel written in letters, puts alongside one another the reports of the splenetic but good-hearted hypochondriac Matthew Bramble, seeing wherever he looks in Georgian London the flotsam of ‘a tide of luxury’, and of his niece Lydia Melford, a frothy but virtuous ingénue who discovers, instead, ‘wealth and grandeur’ comparable only to ‘the Arabian Night’s Entertainment’.

By the time he wrote Humphrey Clinker, Smollett, always a Tory critic of commercial ‘progress’, was sick and disenchanted, living in self-exile in Italy. It is always supposed that Bramble’s disgust was also Smollett’s. Yet the form of the fiction says: ‘take your choice.’ Either, here is every absurdity of appetite posing as elegance; or, here are the delights and excitements of a fashionable metropolis. Pleasure gardens were real places, visited by Fanny Burney and James Boswell as well as by characters in novels. They were also places of the imagination, whether that imagination was appalled or enraptured. They were the inventions of a society of conspicuous consumption (‘luxury’ in the old parlance) and leisure, a society in which pleasure was publicly available and publicly pursued – pleasure heightened by being taken in public. And they were accessible to all who could pay the price of admission.

One of the leading characters in John Brewer’s The Pleasure of the Imagination was a visitor to pleasure gardens. Anna Margaretta Larpent was a moderately prosperous lady living in London in the late 18th century, married to the state official responsible for vetting plays before they reached the stage. For over fifty years she kept a journal detailing her pursuit of culture: her energetic reading (The Rights of Man before breakfast; an evangelical anthology from the Scriptures after), her visits to exhibitions (one morning a kangaroo from Botany Bay; that afternoon mechanical reproductions of oil paintings in Pall Mall), her theatre-going, her attendance at concerts and operas. The Huntington Library in California now houses the 17-volume chronicle of Larpent’s tireless quest for what she called ‘a refinement which can only be felt in the pure pleasure of intellectual pursuits’. Her journal contains, Brewer writes, ‘a carefully and repeatedly drawn representation of herself as a cultured person’. He uses it not only as a catalogue of the pleasures a genteel Georgian lady might respectably pursue, but also as an exemplum of a representative self-awareness. To make yourself cultured was a new imperative for the ‘middling’ classes. Larpent was accounting, to herself, for her cultivation. Her acquisition of tastes and accomplishments – her refinement – was, in her own eyes, a moral obligation.

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